The thrill of finding an arrowhead

John Oncken
A display of points and tools.

Has there ever been a farmer or farm kid (over about forty years of age) who has not picked up an Indian arrowhead from the newly turned soil in a farm field? I think not.

My father had a small collection of arrowheads he’d picked up over the years in our farm fields. He didn’t make a big deal out of searching for them, but I know he was thrilled when he found one.

Once in a while I’d find what I thought might be an arrowhead or maybe a spear and wondered who left it on our farm. Was it the remains of an arrow that killed a deer or one that missed? Was it used in a battle of some sort between Indian tribes or Indians and white settlers in Dane county? Maybe an Indian brave just dropped it while making his way to the nearby Badfish Creek.

After I left the farm I never thought much more about the subject and don’t even know where those few treasures are today – probably in a box somewhere in the basement along with old photos or other memorabilia kept for safekeeping after the farm was sold.

Most everyone has seen collections of what are now called “projectiles” rather than arrowheads, in museums or local historical societies and wondered where they came from, who made them and what did the different shapes mean?

Kurt Sampson identified individual artifacts of folks who wanted to know more about their “finds.”

Identifying the unknown

Some years ago a story about an upcoming presentation and workshop on “artifact identification” to be held at the Dodge County Historical Museum in Beaver Dam drew  my attention. Kurt Sampson, then Museum curator and director explained that “anyone who is interested in arrowheads or pottery can bring it in and show what they found". 

At the time, Sampson was the president of the Wisconsin Archaeological Society and was to present the workshop with archaeologist Christopher Veit. “The workshop will include learning how to properly identify arrowheads and the most common types of lithic (stone) material types used in the manufacture of ancient stone tools.

Archaeologists Kurt Sampson, left, and Christopher Veit presented an overview of Wisconsin's people since the ice age.

That looked like the place to get a fast education on arrowheads and such – I don’t guess I ever thought about there being more than one kind. Did I ever learn differently!

12,000 years ago

Sampson began by explaining that stone projectiles (spears) and tools in Wisconsin go back 12,000 to 13,000 years to what is called the Early Paleo-Indian era. Glaciers were receding, wandering bands of people were settling in the area. They hunted bison and mastodon with spear-shaped projectile points and used stone choppers and scrappers to process game and dress hides.

Over the years the climate became warmer and the way of life of the population changed. Sometime in the 1,000 to 3,000 BC era, the use of a spear thrower (atlatl) was developed. This new piece of equipment equipped with a long wooden shaft enabled the spear thrower to increase the force and throwing range of spears in hunting. 

Bow and arrow is a late arrival  

Although I, and probably most people, refer to the artifacts we find or have inherited as arrows, many are really spears. Sampson explains that the bow and arrow were a relatively late addition to the prehistoric record and didn’t come into existence until 400 to 500 A.D.  

Nowadays it is possible to determine with fair accuracy where the artifact came from and how old it is.

Making a hand ax by pecking.  The depression in the ax head on the left is the result of two hours work by Jaremy Cobble, Elkhart Lake.

How old?

It wasn’t until the 1950s, when radiocarbon dating became practical, that it became possible to date projectile points and enable archeologists to determine when certain arrowheads were in fashion. The stone material used can determine where the material originated. Note: There are about 30 rock types in Wisconsin that Native Americans used to make tools and projectiles, many that have provided raw material for many thousands of years. 

“Arrowheads made of stone material that does not come from their local area tells us that it had to have been traded into the area,” Sampson said. “During the span of North American prehistory there were long-distance trading networks that would exchange exotic materials." 

Many arrowheads and other artifacts are found on farmland after it has been plowed, he explained. “Nowadays the use of big equipment and no-till farming has caused a disconnect between farmers and finding artifacts – they do not work as close to the soil as in the past."

How do you make a small arrowhead from a big piece of rock? Slowly and carefully, using other rocks as a hammer and tools made of animal horn and bone. The process is called knapping and according to Sampson dates back a million years to the Neanderthals. (It is still being done today by amateurs and professionals.)

Lester Vondra, began collecting artifacts in the late 80’s and now has a collection of projectiles and tools - all from the same farm in unglaciated Grant county.

It’s the thrill

There is a lot of interest in collecting artifacts and projectiles. Why?

"There is a thrill in finding something and even in searching for things that came from a culture that lived 2,000-8,000 years ago,” Sampson says. “You can only imagine why that arrowhead was where you found it.”

Many of the folks attending the program brought one or several items for Sampson and Veit to look at – some were indeed arrowheads, some just rock chips. 

Doug and Mike McCallum and Mikes’s daughter Brooke, came with a few artifacts they found in the Oregon/Brooklyn area and were pleased that they were “for real.”  A farmer brought several display cases of artifacts he has collected in a farm field near Lancaster. "I was taking soil samples in a farm field and saw an arrowhead in the late 80’s and have returned many times.”

Jaremy Cobble, Elkhart, Lake  describes himself as an ‘Avocational Archaeologist and his vast collection of artifacts proves it.

Jaremy Cobble of Elkhart Lake, who calls himself an avocational archaeologist, has found many hundreds of artifacts on several farms in Calumet and Sheboygan counties.  “I walk the fields every year and find more,” he says. “These are farms on which Indians lived for many years.”

Some things I was surprised to find out: Native Americans had a complex and far reaching trading system 10,000 years ago: Fashion often influenced the kind of projectiles that were made; Many folks think modern civilization is the smartest. Maybe so, but there were people who lived long ago who fashioned precision tools from pieces of rock that we marvel at today.

If you’d like to know more about the ancient artifacts you have stored in a box or walking the fields today looking for history, check the internet or better yet call Kurt Sampson at 414-405-4367 and have him present a program. You’ll be fascinated as I was.

John F Oncken can be reached at 608-572-0747 or